Integrity is a Competitive Advantage: The Story of Seven Cups

When we think of “integrity,” we usually conjure up words like “trust,” “ethical,” and “honesty.”  While the integrity of a company includes the above it also has another connotation:  will the boat float in the water or sink.  Such is the case with one of my clients, Seven Cups.

Seven Cups is a US-based tea enterprise with significant international presence in the retail, wholesale and ecommerce marketplace.  In the past decade it has grown from a local farmer’s market booth into a thriving operation whose customers now include Whole Foods, Hyatt Resorts, Simply Tea, Chi Yi (Brazil), and Silk Roads (Canada).  In 2008 Seven Cups became the only non-Chinese tea company to be granted a Chinese Export License.  In 2012 Travel + Leisure named Seven Cups one of the six best places to drink tea in America.  And they spend less than 1% of their annual budget on traditional marketing.

So what’s the secret sauce?

According to Seven Cups founder, Austin Hodge, the key is the uncompromising integrity of their business model which includes:

  • An unwavering commitment to “authentic content” in each representation of their products.  They may say something like, “this tea is really good” but that’s about it.  They focus on personally tasting and approving each product that goes to market, and their customers know this.

 

  • A solid belief in a product and the culture that produces it.  In Austin’s words Seven Cups “promotes” (not “sells”) Chinese tea as part of an effort to bring the industry into the 21st century.  Seven Cups believes paying attention to the health of their larger tea marketplace is good business for their much smaller company and its employees.
  • Sourcing the product in a very “hands on” manner (as in the photograph) that preserves relationships and focuses on quality for everyone’s benefit, especially the producers.  Everyone in the sourcing chain is a collaborator in each entity’s individual success.  The model encourages a constant focus on quality.
  • Transparency of operation so that everyone can see how everyone else benefits.  This is more than what is often referred to as open book business practices – the view is that commerce is about doing good things with plenty of benefit available for everyone who participates with productive effort.  “We’re able to pay a fair price,” says Austin, “and everyone is able to buy stuff, afford a place to live, and have their car.  It’s all good.”
  • Sharing experiences as a way to create customer relationships.  It’s not just about drinking tea, it’s about appreciating the source, the culture, a conversation and local friendship.

Integrity is ultimately a value related to the hull of your ship.  If you focus there the foundation is solid and that’s what people will experience.  In this case, drinking tea is about a strong connection to a larger human community that transcends borders and boundaries.